'Catastrophic failure' led to black lung problems

A QUEENSLAND Parliamentary report on black lung has found there was a “catastrophic failure” at all levels of government and industry to protect underground coal mine workers from the insidious disease and the effects of dust.
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Lou Caruana

Minister for Natural Resources and Mines Dr Anthony Lynham welcomed the Parliamentary Select Committee report into coal workers’ pneumoconiosis and said the department would consider the committee’s 400-plus page report and its recommendations carefully before responding within the 90-day timeframe.

“I am sure the report will provide further insight as the government continues to implement the reforms recommended by last year’s independent review by Monash University,” he said.

The Monash review was part of a five-point action plan Dr Lynham announced in January last year.

The review recommended a range of reforms to Queensland’s coal mine workers’ health scheme.

However, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy union said there were matters for government that still needed to be addressed urgently including the need for a Black Lung Victims Fund.

CFMEU Mining and Energy Division Queensland district president Stephen Smyth said the report’s recommendations to lower the legal dust limit and put in place a more independent monitoring and compliance regime were key to ensuring the safety of workers in the future.

“This is great news and we look forward to all sides of politics coming in behind these recommendations,” he said. 

“Mining companies have proven they cannot be trusted with self-regulation so anything which removes their responsibilities and puts that in the hands of an independent statutory body is a good thing.

“We need these reforms implemented as soon as possible in next sitting period and locked down prior to the next state election.”

Smyth said 20 Queenslanders had already been diagnosed with black lung and the legacy impact of decades of neglecting the issue meant that number was likely to skyrocket over the coming years, meaning a victims fund was urgently needed.

“There are a very large number of miners, many of whom are dying right now, who are getting no compensation at the moment because the limitations and shortcomings of the workplace compensation regime,” he said.

“These workers, like Percy Verrall who was the first known case in Queensland and has done so much for Queenslanders to get this issue on the radar, are currently languishing with little or no support. They can’t wait much longer for the Black Lung Victims Fund to be established.”

The union also supported in principle the recommendation to have a tripartite group look at health screening, but that needed to be done by independent assessors and not medical professionals aligned with coal companies.

In July last year, Lynham announced a plan with industry, unions and the medical profession to implement the reforms.

“This coordinated approach continues to deliver significant improvements to protect our coal mine workers,” he said.  

Since July 2016, coal miners’ compulsory chest X-rays have been assessed at least twice; firstly by an Australian radiologist and then by US-based experts. By the end of this year, chest X-rays will be read by qualified B-reader Australian radiologists.

Former coal mine workers who have retired or left the industry before January 1 2017 can also have medical examinations and chest x-rays.

By the end of the year, coal mine workers will have world-class lung function tests, with new standards to set out clear requirements for medical practices conducting the tests, including training for staff members, spirometry testing and interpretation, spirometry equipment, and quality control.

A training program is to be developed for doctors, with a register to be established of accredited doctors, medical providers and clinics to undertake health examinations, lung function tests, and take and interpret chest x-rays.

Ernst and Young will audit the reformed scheme, including medical providers and clinics on the medical register.

Coal companies must provide dust monitoring data to the Mines Inspectorate every three months for publishing online. The first set of data will be published in July.